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Holey Grail: 5 tips for bolder bubbles in your crumb


If your baking journey has been anything like mine, you’ll have an automatic reverential intake of breath when Dan Lepard is mentioned. The artisan baker’s artisan baker, he is seen around the world as one of the very best. For me there is more though. There are lots of good, even excellent bakers around but Dan is able to articulate his approach to baking bread in a way that most others cannot.

Little did I know that more than 12 years since my wife bought me a copy of my now slightly battered The Handmade Loaf that I would be able to consider Dan a friend of mine and the reason for BakeryBits’s very existence. What’s more, we’ve got some occasional newsletters penned by Dan starting today that I’m sure you will enjoy. (Don’t worry, Vanessa is still here too, she’s just juggling far too much to do quite so many).

So Dan, let’s have some tips please?

If I went back in a time machine to the 1800s, to tell bakers that today we pay extra bucks for bread where the crumb is tangy, sour and almost entirely filled with large bubbles, they would think I’d arrived from the outer circle of Hell itself. Yes, in a little over 100 years, we’ve gone from desperately fearing sour bread and large holes in the crumb to today’s world where acidity and irregular aeration is the “Holey” grail in modern artisan baking.

Not everyone is a convert. I had a tweet from a home baker last year, unhappy that my Crusty Potato Bread recipe (from The Handmade Loaf) created a loaf with big bubbles in the crumb. “All the butter and marmalade will fall through the holes when I toast it” he cried. He had a point, though I like the way the edges of the holes burn in the toaster, the butter melting and oozing down the sides, and the marmalade finding even more places to hide, like jewels embedded in the hot, crisp sourdough. But then, I always liked crumpets, so a holey sourdough is just an overgrown delight to me.

But say you are a convert like me, and want to get even more bubbles in your dough while still ending with a rounded loaf that rips in the oven along the slash, and slices to reveal a beautiful web of large holes through the loaf… how do you achieve this? Well here are my five tips for bolder bubbles in your crumb. They’re all related, and will work together, but you need to understand each one to get the best result.

1. Extend that rise

Unless the time you allow is relatively long, you won’t be able to fit in the stretching, shaping and final cool rise needed to fill the crumb with lots of irregular-sized bubbles. Now, I say “relatively” because you first have to plan how much sourdough or yeast you use, to ensure that your dough has enough stretch in it to last from initial mixing to finally baking. If your bread turns out full of holes but with tiny tears in the crust, and often flattish in shape too, then your dough has over-risen. This can happen because:

(a) The more sourdough or yeast your dough has in it, the faster it rises.
(b) The more water your dough contains, the faster it rises.
(c) The warmer your dough is, the faster it rises.

I aim for my first rise before shaping to take 3-5 hours, allowing for a stretch-and-fold every 45 minutes, and at least 3 of them. By the end of the first rise I want to see the dough looking bubbly, but still with lots of resilience if I pinch and pull on a piece of it (it mustn’t break easily).

So the key thing is to reduce the sourdough or yeast in the recipe just enough so that the dough rises and fills with bubbles after 3-5 hours, but still has enough elasticity to last through the final shaping, rising and baking.

Equipment to help from BakeryBits:

I always have a timer going, often in my pocket while I’m out walking our dog, or beside me at my desk when I’m writing. This timer from BakeryBits works perfectly and will make sure you always know how long your dough has been rising for:

2. Increase the water in your dough

In overly simple terms, the more water your dough has, the more bubbles you’ll potentially get in the final loaf. But the devil is in the detail here, because as your dough ferments, the bacteria in the sourdough (or even in the flour) will start to degrade the starch and gluten and, given enough time, make the dough appear even more soft and flowing. So, you need to allow for the length of time and the temperature your dough rises at, and go gently on increasing the water.

Hard-core artisan bakers will often talk to each other, especially on Instagram, which has become sourdough central for bakers around the world, about the percentage of water in their dough, expressed as a ratio of water to flour. So, if a baker says they use 75% water in their dough, they typically mean that for every 1000g of flour, they’re using 750g water.

Now, this produces a dough that is very soft and stretchy, if difficult to handle, and it allows them to stretch and fold the dough easily, which in turns stretches and elongates the emerging air bubbles. That way, little bubbles turn into bigger bubbles with each stretch and fold. The bubbles also help to give the dough volume and bounce, very much like the way that whisking turns egg whites into a solid mass of meringue. When you get the water right, and the dough full of bubbles, you’ll find that, with practice, the dough is surprisingly easy to shape. For more on this, see Tip 4.

Equipment to help from BakeryBits:

I weigh both the water and the flour, so that I know exactly how much water is in the dough (rather than measuring water by volume). These are the scales I use at home every day:

3. Mix your dough in stages

This piece of advice I’ve learned from practice, without needing to understand the exact details of the science. If you mix flour and water together and let it sit for a few hours at room temperature before adding the sourdough (or the yeast, mixed with a little flour and water into a batter and left to ferment), a method popularised by the late Professor Raymond Calvel, the aeration in the final loaf appears to be greater than if you just mix everything together at once.

If you also delay the addition of salt until 10-20 minutes after you’ve added the sourdough or yeast, the aeration appears even larger and more exaggerated - certainly in the loaves I bake, and those of many bakers I talk to. And to bring part of Tip 2 into this, some bakers will wet their hands liberally with water as they fold in the salt , which has the effect of creating layers or tiny pockets of moisture through the dough. When the loaf bakes, these turn to steam and open the texture up even more.

It does depend on how much patience you have when you’re making bread. For some bakers, both at home and professionally, this is all too much faffing about. Which is fine, but then be gentle in your critique of the results you get without putting the extra effort in. I honestly enjoy every single aspect of bread baking, even more now than when I began, so complexity isn’t an issue if I’m after the ‘ultimate aeration’ in my loaf. But if you're a bit short on time or patience, you might want to try just one or other of these ‘delaying’ stages separately, rather than both together, to see if it suits your style of baking.

Equipment to help from BakeryBits:

Though this is probably the cheapest piece of equipment I use, it’s also the one I use most. Whether I’m mixing flour and water, or adding something to it, it helps to scrape the bowl down to make sure everything is evenly incorporated .

4. Stretch and fold your dough

I was taught this method back in the 90s by a French baker working for the flour company Grands Moulins de Paris, who sold a flour mix they called Campaillou. You would add 80% water, so it resembled more of a batter than a bread dough, then tip this into an oiled or floured container. Every 45 minutes, we would stretch the dough and fold it back in on itself very much like the folds you give puff pastry but without the rolling out. And over several hours, the dough would be transformed by this process from liquid and flowing to solid and marshmallow-like. What happens is that the bubbles produced by fermentation get elongated and enlarged through stretching and folding, and the surface tension caused by these bubbles pushing the dough outwards creates a firmer, bouncier texture. This is key to getting a loaf that has a bold upward rise, as well as holes throughout the crumb.

Connected to this is the final shape you choose for your loaf: longer loaves can have more exaggerated aeration than round shapes, as the bubbles get stretched again during the final shaping. So, for great bubbles, go long!

Equipment to help from BakeryBits:

If you make a lot of dough, you might want to invest in a dough box, as you can do all the stretching and folding of the dough inside it, then just stick the lid on and let it rise undisturbed until the next stretch.

5. A long cool final rise, and a very hot steamy oven.

Leaving the dough to rise slowly in the refrigerator overnight, especially if it’s sourdough, seems to exaggerate the aeration even further. Why, I’m not quite sure. Possibly in part because bacterial fermentation takes more time, and so cooling the dough slows the yeast’s action, and allows the bacteria to catch up. This is just my guess, so don’t quote me. Let the dough sit inside a cloth-lined basket or banneton, and turn it out onto a baking tray, a cloche base or (using a peel) a bakestone, and then bake it immediately.

This method also means that the dough is slightly cold when it begins to bake, and is then almost explosively heated in the hot oven, which helps the dough rise outwards with a bold shape. If you can, bake your loaf in a steamy environment, either by baking it under a cloche, or in a deep metal casserole with a lid. This holds in all the moisture, so the loaf creates its own steam. Or try the way I do it: Have a solid metal skillet in the base of the oven, and a bakestone on a shelf above it. Slide the dough from a peel onto the bakestone and, protecting your hand from the steam, pour boiling water into the skillet. Less steam, but easier if you have longer shapes that won’t fit into a pot.

Equipment to help from BakeryBits:

You won’t need everything listed below, so just choose the bits you need:

Cloche Baking Dome

Make fantastic bread in your oven every time with a Cloche. Ensure perfect golden, crackly crust and moist, evenly baked bread with this amazing product, based on 1000s of years of bread baking traditions.

Cane Banneton

500g or 1lb oval cane banneton or proving basket

Banneton Liner

Washable cotton liner for cane and dishwashable bannetons

Wooden bread peel

Wooden bread or pizza peel 30cm paddle and 100cm long, ideal for domestic ovens

Welsh Steel Bakestone

Welsh Baking Stone made from steel for baking, griddling and barbecues. Use it to bake pizzas and bread in your oven, or crumpets on your hob, or sear steaks on your barbecue.

Dan is too modest to say so, but you can imagine, his classes are in demand from keen amateur and professional bakers around the world.

Dan's last class this year at Cookery School will be on Saturday 11th November. For dates in 2018, check Dan’s website or email Cookery School.

Do you have a sourdough question for Vanessa? Send it to us and the best ones will appear in our next postbag edition and receive a dough whisk.

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Are we missing something? An usual flour, a particular tin, or a special piece of equipment you’d like to see on our shelves? Let us know and if we decide to stock it, you will receive the very first one of the item you suggest.

JOBS

Full time baker for Poilane Ltd
London

Poilane bakery produced wood fire baked bread in the at most respect of the bakery tradition. We are passionate about bread and we are constantly looking for the best ingredients and the best production techniques.


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